Justin Gilbert, Darqueze Dennard among notable cornerbacks in 2014 NFL draft class
The incoming rookie class of wide receivers put on a show Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. From Brandin Cooks’ electric 4.33 40 time to teammates Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant each hitting the low 4.4s to Tevin Reese flashing a 41-inch vertical, the position group made it clear that the NFL’s offensive revolution likely will not be dying down soon.
Unless, that is, this draft’s defensive prospects have something to say about it.
Cornerbacks and safeties close out the combine on Tuesday, giving them a shot to leave a lasting final impression on the scouts, coaches and GMs in attendance. The corners, in particular, will be in the spotlight. With some experts predicting that as many as nine or 10 receivers could be Round 1 selections, are there any soon-to-be rookies out there capable of shutting them down?
Here’s a quick refresher on some of cornerbacks to watch:
Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State (5-foot-11, 190 pounds): The 40-yard dash may have been more important to Dennard than any other player at this position group. Why? Because the most pressing question about the aggressive Spartans’ star centers around his speed — specifically, his ability to track receivers downfield should they beat him off the line. He allayed some of these fears by running an (unofficial) 4.42.
The rest of the package is there. Dennard fits the physical-CB mold sought after by so many front offices these days — he had four picks last season, plus a career-high 62 tackles (3.5 for loss) as he showed the ability to attack the ball at the line of scrimmage.
Dennard did not make it in to meet with the media at the combine. Defensive backs have the smallest timeframe for that activity, so testing and other interviews can interfere.
Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech (6-0, 194) Really interesting 2013 season for Fuller. Injuries cost him, especially late in the year, but before that he stepped up in place of fellow injured CB Antone Exum and even slid into a linebacker spot when Virginia Tech needed him to do so. If you’re looking for this draft’s D.J. Hayden — i.e. a prospect who might be picked well above where people initially expect — Fuller could fit the mold.
“I would love that,” said Fuller of being a Round 1 selection. “That’s one of my goals. All I can do is show what I can do, and I can believe that I’m a first-round pick or whatever, but I’m not focused on that.”
Fuller also has experience at safety, in addition to his occasional LB snaps.
Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State (6-0, 202): Gilbert said that he ran a 4.33 40 a couple weeks ago and hoped to improve upon that time Tuesday. He didn’t quite get there — he ran an unofficial 4.35 — but he ran well enough that Mike Mayock declared he will probably be the first cornerback off the board come May.
The Oklahoma State product agrees, saying that he feels he is the top corner in this draft (a familiar refrain spouted by prospects over the weekend), though he did admit that his technique as a tall, lanky prospect must improve for him to have continued success. Gilbert cited his “transition coming out of breaks and backpedalling” as his main focus leading up to the combine.
“You have to be able to use great technique, because … I have long legs, short torso,” Gilbert said. “So it’s kind of hard for me to get my hips down and turn around and all that. But the more you work at it, the better you get at it.”
LaMarcus Joyner, Florida State (5-8, 184) Along with Jason Verrett, who’s listed lower, Joyner could be limited to a slot/nickel corner role because of his size. Should he earn a draft spot higher than what that designation might typically earn, Joyner may be able to thank his versatility.
While with the Seminoles, Joyner moved around from cornerback to safety, performing well in both spots. The Cardinals used Tyrann Mathieu in a similar way during his rookie season, lining him up as a safety in base sets and then dropping him down to the slot when teams spread the field. Joyner has the talent to take on that type of responsibility at the next level.
Marcus Roberson, Florida (6-0, 191) “I just love playing man-to-man corner,” said Roberson, one of three Florida corners in this draft, “and I feel I can play that better than anybody at the combine right now.”
Is Roberson a better pro prospect than former teammates Loucheiz Purifoy or Jaylen Watkins? The former may have a stronger case in the argument — Purifoy is such a gifted athlete that Florida toyed with working him in on offense early in the season. Roberson, though, is more NFL-ready strictly as a cornerback, despite being banged up and dealing with a suspension this past season.
Bradley Roby, Ohio State (5-11, 194) Can Roby flip the switch back on? He was dominant during the 2012 season, to the point where he could have declared for the ’13 draft and been in the top-CB mix. This past year was far more up and down, though he did pick off three passes (one more than he had in ’12). The production of his redshirt junior season simply never matched the expectations.
“Me not playing that first game, my mindset in camp wasn’t where it should have been,” admitted Roby, who was suspended for Ohio State’s opener after an offseason arrest. “I knew I wasn’t playing the first game, so I might have maybe not gotten as many reps as I normally would have. At corner, reps is everything — training your eyes, looking at the right places all the time, all those type of things.
“[I] kind of got away from that. Kind of undisciplined type of play I was playing at the beginning of the season.”
NFL teams could view those comments one of two ways: Either it’ll be worrisome that Roby lost focus when faced with adversity or they will be encouraged that he took responsibility for what happened. Personally, I’d lean toward the latter. Roby was impressive during his media session Saturday.
Jason Verrett, TCU (5-9, 193) Purely from a height standpoint, Verrett projects out more as a slot corner than a shutdown guy out wide. He argued that belief is nonsense.
“I’ve been challenged with receivers that have been over six-foot my whole college career,” Verrett said. “I played against Odell Beckham, I played against Mike Davis, Eric Ward, Antwan Goodley. … I feel like I’m this height for a reason, but I can compete with the best.
“If you look at my film, I played on the outside and I covered big receivers. If I have to go in the nickel, I’ll go in the nickel. If I have to go outside, I’ll go outside.”
Like it or not, Verrett’s size probably will work against him come the draft — the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said on a conference call last week that Verrett would be top-20 if he stood a couple inches taller. On the flip side, working in Verrett’s favor is that defenses find themselves playing nickel frequently these days due to the proliferation of offenses that go three- and four-wide.
Others to watch: Loucheiz Purifoy and Jaylen Watkins, Florida; Bashaud Breeland, Clemson; Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska; Keith McGill, Utah; Pierre Desir, Lindenwood.